NEW YORK — IN years past, baseball strikes have evoked elegies and laments. There was a sense of violation, of Eden lost. This year, by contrast, most stories showed the emotional timbre of accounts of a telephone strike. Sixty-nine percent of respondents to a Sporting News poll said they would lose interest in the game if the dispute delayed the start of the season. ``The players and owners have no right to drag my sport through the dirt,'' one irate reader said.
On the one side were owners who have signed a billion-dollar television contract. On the other side were players who make, on the average, half a million dollars a year. Yet they could not agree on whether players would be eligible for salary arbitration after two years or after three.
The final agreement was, predictably, a jerry-rigged compromise. Owners agreed to raise the minimum salary to $100,000 and boost their contribution to the players' pension fund. The players agreed that just a portion of the third-year players would qualify for arbitration. With no fundamental issues resolved, both sides will probably go at it again when the contract expires in 1994.
Most fans probably date baseball's Lost Eden to 1966. That was the year a contentious labor lawyer named Marvin Miller took over the Major League Players Association and led it down the path of militancy and confrontation. In 1981 the players actually struck for 50 days in the middle of the season. Oh, for the simpler days of Ducky Medwick and Dizzy Dean.
But that baseball Eden never really was, says David Voight, professor of history at Albright College in Reading, Pa., and author of several books on baseball history. One hundred years ago, in fact, major league players went on strike over the same basic issues that lay beneath the impasse this spring.
The players themselves ran the first pro teams, and this continued until 1876, when the financiers of these teams staged what Voight calls a ``coup.'' In a manner typical of the industrialists of the era, they proceeded to give each team a territorial monopoly and to shut the door on new teams. To quell salary demands from players, they concocted the infamous ``reserve clause,'' which bound a player to a team for life, and began the practice of buying and selling players without their consent.
A young player named John Ward led the first revolt against such practices. Mr. Ward, who held a law degree from Columbia University, argued eloquently that the reserve clause turned players into chattel. When the owners wouldn't budge, the players struck and formed their own league, with backing from independent financiers. The new teams operated on a cooperative model, with players sharing revenue with the owners.
The players' league outdrew the established National Association (which filled its rosters from the minors). But the older league had a much deeper pocket. The most powerful owner was a former player named Albert Spalding, who had since established the Spalding sporting goods empire. Spalding threatened to withdraw advertising from newspapers too friendly to the players' cause. Spalding enticed some of the new owners into the National Association, and the players' league folded after one season.
During the next 50 years there were sporadic efforts to form a players' organization, but each time these fell short. Players were reasonably well paid, but the hated reserve clause and player-trading remained.
In 1925 Rep. Fiorello LaGuardia of New York (later New York City mayor) introduced a bill that would apply a 90 percent tax on the sales of players when the proceeds didn't go to the player. It didn't pass, and there matters stood until World War II.
The war prompted major changes in baseball. Former soldiers were not inclined to be pushed around, and television contracts infused new millions into the game. Players understandably wanted a share. At the same time, the owners were undercutting their own moral position. They used to argue that fan loyalty depended on players staying with the same team. But then Walter O'Malley and Horace Stoneham slapped their fans in the face by moving the Dodgers and Giants from New York City to California.
If the owners could play for the highest bidder, why not the players? In 1976, players gained the right to do just that when an arbitrator ruled that the infamous reserve clause bound a player for only one year. That decision ushered in free agency and the amazing escalation in player salaries that continues unabated.
As a result, just when the power of most American unions is ebbing, the baseball players are waxing strong. The reason is that baseball is where the auto and steel industries were in the 1960s, with a monopoly in the American market. And like the auto and steel workers, the players nurture indignation from past grievances, even while their salaries are well past the comfort zone.
Some labor partisans are encouraged by the players' show of solidarity. But to others, what the union didn't show was more significant. It had a rare chance to use the public spotlight for larger ends, says Matthew Goodman, sports columnist for Z Magazine, a leftist monthly. It could have called on the owners to roll back ticket prices, or to provide a better deal for the minor leaguers. Instead, he observes, ``Here's 500 guys basically concerned about themselves.''
``I'm just going to say, `A plague on both their houses,''' Mr. Goodman says. ``And this is the game I cherish more than anything.''